Exmoor Horn: Dual-purpose breed offers value as farming policy shifts 

Originating from Exmoor National Park, the hardy Exmoor Horn sheep breed is an ideal grazer for marginal and wildlife-rich grassland – securing its place as an important part of future farming businesses. Not only that, but it’s also valued for its high-quality fleece and meat. We spoke to the breeders’ society to find out more.

exmoor horn ewe and lamb in a field
© Exmoor Horn Sheep Breeders’ Society.

Shaping the landscape 

One of Britain’s most beautiful and remote natural landscapes, Exmoor National Park in southwest England demands a hardy breed that can withstand harsh winters and thrive on sparse upland hill pasture. 

Exmoor Horn sheep have been on the hills of Exmoor since time immemorial, helping to create and maintain the landscape we see today, according to the Exmoor Horn Sheep Breeders’ Society (EHSBS).  

The breed has become perfectly adapted to this environment over the generations, and its ability to graze Exmoor is important for maintaining the open moorland and indigenous heathers. However, the sheep also thrive and finish fast on lusher lowland pastures. 

As an effective grazer of sensitive landscapes, ideally suited to marginal and wildlife-rich grassland, the Exmoor Horn has a secure future in British farm businesses, as government policy seeks to reward environmental land management. 

Exmoor Horn ram
© Exmoor Horn Sheep Breeders’ Society.

Outstanding flavour 

Exmoors are classified as a true hill breed and described as a dual-purpose, upland sheep. They deliver profitable returns from lamb, as well as an effective management solution for conservation grassland. 

Grazing distinctive upland pastures produces lamb of outstanding flavour and texture. The breed offers commercial value in producing purebred or cross-bred lamb with added-value and marketing potential, EHSBS says. 

Exmoor Horns are also famous for their mutton, once considered the finest available by the London restaurant trade in the 1800s. While this market has been in steady decline, the Mutton Renaissance Club has seen a resurgence of interest in this traditional specialty product, which signals a very positive step for the breed. 

flock of exmoor horn sheep running in a field
© Exmoor Horn Sheep Breeders’ Society.

Key benefits of the Exmoor Horn: 

  • Good mothers and milkers 
  • Docile sheep, easy to handle and maintain, including at lambing time 
  • Produces high quality finished lamb and mutton 
  • Unusually for a hill breed, it produces a high-quality fleece, of excellent colour, good staple length and quality with a micron count of 36.7. Exmoor Horn wool is robust and hard wearing, ideally suited for socks, pullovers, jackets and other outer garments as well as being excellent for carpet and mattress manufacturing
  • Exmoor Horn rams also make excellent terminal sires on a wide variety of crosses, passing on their docile natures and ability to produce finished lamb from low input systems 
  • Exmoor Horns are a good breed for those new to sheep keeping, and will “look after themselves” as long as all their essential needs are met. 

READ MORE: Jacob sheep: Distinctive, hardy and good tempered

exmoor horn ewe and lamb in shed
© Exmoor Horn Sheep Breeders’ Society.

Exmoor Mules 

The Exmoor Mule is bred by crossing Exmoor ewes with Bluefaced Leicester rams and are considered by many to be one of the finest mules in Britain, the society says. 

The Mule retains many of the Exmoor’s key qualities – a quiet temperament, easy to contain and handle – plus improved hybrid vigour performance. Lambs achieve good weight gains from grass and finish easily at around 18–22g deadweight. 

The Bluefaced Leicester brings additional qualities, resulting in a good sized, long animal of good conformation and excellent fat to weight ratio. 

Key benefits of the Exmoor Mule: 

  • Prolific – 160–200% lambing 
  • Longevity – Hardwearing ewe that holds it teeth 
  • Maternal ability – very milky, good mothers 
  • Premium quality lamb – 18–22kg deadweight, 2–3L fatness and U/R+ confirmation 
  • Hard feet – very few foot problems 
  • Low flock depreciation – long lived and cheaply maintained. 

The breeders’ society  

The Exmoor Horn Sheep Breeders’ Society has been in existence for 118 years, having first formed in 1906. The first registered sale and show of Exmoor Horns was held at Winsford, Somerset in August 1907, when “1,200 ewes were sold by auction, at an average price per head of 42 shillings”. 

The 1908 Flock Book records 132 members and 25,000 pure Exmoor Horn sheep inspected and branded. Meanwhile, the 2005 Flock Book shows returns for 82 flocks and around 19,000 registered ewes. Membership is once again growing, with several new members establishing pedigree flocks, the society says. 

For new members who are just finding their way with sheep keeping, the society runs an informal ‘mentor’ system. A local, experienced member of the society will be available to call on for advice. Contact the EHSBS secretary Jan Brown for more information on info@exmoorhornbreeders.co.uk or 01398 341372/07977 058141.

exmoor horn at show with medals lined up on rump
© Exmoor Horn Sheep Breeders’ Society.

Shows and sales 

Society sales are held every year from September to November, organised by Exmoor Farmers Livestock Auctions Ltd. The list of shows and sales for 2024 can be found on the EHSBS website. 

Information is also available on stock for sale

Read more sheep news.

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